Sunday’s Scripture ~ Deuteronomy 6:1-9
In 1897 master painter Paul Gauguin painted a massive piece – roughly 4 1/2 feet by 12 1/4 feet! – in oil on canvas entitled, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” You can view the artwork here.
In this piece Gauguin explores the many stages of life. Reading the piece from right to left we first greet two women and a baby, characterizing the infancy and fragility of life but also the promise and hope of new life. A man sits near them providing a caring and watchful eye as they women ponder the future.
In the center of the piece there are many scenes: a youth picking a fruit symbolizing exploration and the search for resources to sustain life while a child eats fruit already harvested. There are animals representing companions that we have in the world and an idol statue, which for Gauguin, represents the presence of the spiritual and the sacred in humanity’s midst.
At the left we see a woman crouched and frail, preparing for death, and she is accompanied by a young woman as her caregiver in her final days.
From life to new life – where we come from, what we are, and where we are going.
The Deuteronomist (the writer of Deuteronomy) offers a Scriptural narrative for the Israelites of where they come from, what they are, and where they are going at the conclusion of chapter 6. It writes,
When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the decrees and the statues and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. [The Lord] brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that [the Lord] promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. If we diligently observe the entire commandment before the Lord our God, as [the Lord] has commanded us, we will be in the right. (Deuteronomy 6:20-25)
From this Scripture passage we can answer about the Israelites the questions Gauguin posed in his painting title:
1. Where did the Israelites come from? God brought them out of slavery in Egypt.
2. What are they? They are God’s chosen people – from the time of Abraham and Sarah to their present to their future, which is our present, to our future, which is another generation’s present, and so on for eternity. They, and we, are God’s chosen people.
Where are they going? God is preparing them to enter the land God has prepared for them – the Promised Land. And in giving the people this land, God asks for obedience to God’s law in return.
Coupled with the Law is the giving of the Shema. The Law provides instruction for righteous living, which will lead to fruitful, enjoyable lives. The Shema is a call to obedience to the Law and therefore to the life it will yield. The end of Deuteronomy 6 explores for readers what God has already done for the people, reminds the people of God’s continuing presence, and foreshawdows what is to come.
God knows the answers to the three questions. In time, as God always has, God will reveal in entirety those answers to us. For now, may we find contentment in knowing that God has brought us this far, that God has chosen us – we are God’s and God is ours – and that God will surely lead us where we are headed next.
Prayer: We Travel toward a Land Unknown by Thomas Troeger (from Borrowed Light, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, page 44)
We travel toward a land unknown – God’s word our only chart – and breathe in the wind that has swept and blow from that land to the human heart, and on the wind we hear the sound of Miriam’s dance by the sea, and we dance with the slaves whom Pharaoh bound but the Lord of hosts set free.
Then where our freedom first was won we settle down to stay, but find that the journey has just begun, that the wind blows another way. And on the wind we hear the song of Moses, David and Ruth, who are giving us strength to right the wrong and to speak and do the truth.
And when we think the journey’s end is very near at hand we learn that the road has another bend and we’re far from the promised land, but then the wind returns and lifts our heart and our strength and our soul, and we’re filled with the steadfast Christlike gifts that reveal again our goal:
We travel toward a land unknown but all along the route we’re thanking our Lord for the wonders shown and the faith that has conquered doubt. Give thanks the wind is blowing still, and pray that the church may be blessed with the vision and grace and strength of will to be faithful on its quest.